Uncool Conservatives Need to Re-Engage Pop Culture
No cure-all panacea explains the GOP’s loss this past Tuesday. The country is sharply divided, and a long battle for the hearts and minds of American citizens lay before conservatives. Post-election analysis already points to the public education system, European attitudes on citizenship, Hispanic outreach, and women’s issues outreach. In a close election, every vote counts. No battlefield can be ceded. This includes the culture wars.
Culture matters. It’s the fertile ground where political seeds are planted and votes harvested.
When ethnically-diverse, Hollywood actress Stacey Dash tweeted in favor of Mitt Romney last month, conservatives flocked to her defense as the left besieged her with ugly and vicious taunts. Yet she shouldn’t have had to endure this concentrated rage. The reason a moderately successful actress became the focal point of a pop culture backlash is because there aren’t enough conservative celebrities to disperse the hate.
Conservatives know they’ve been routed in the pop culture wars, and judging by the intense embrace of the few celebrities in Hollywood that skew to the right, conservatives also understand the importance of victories on this turf. Various websites often run “Conservatives in Hollywood” slide shows because the creature is so rare (for the liberal version, just go to IMDb.com, the cast of any movie). Based on the intensity of leftist attacks on conservative celebrities, the left understands how important it is to defend this ground.
Romney kinda sorta got the pop culture gap when he declared he liked Snooki during his appearance on Live! With Kelly and Michael, but the objective isn’t to see the garbage in pop culture and yell, “Me too!” (and come across as phony in doing so). The object is to create your own culture and ridicule the absurdity of the existing culture. Most people like to feel clever, smart. In the know. Being in on a joke makes people feel good.
Obama is better at this kind of relationship with average people, and the exit polling reflected it. Conservative media ridiculed Obama for doing his NCAA Tournament Brackets on ESPN as well as his many appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The View, etc. when he should’ve been doing the work of the state. However, those appearances made him available and accessible to casual voters.
The old question was who would you rather have a beer with? The new question is, who do you believe has a fantasy football team? The answer to that question has won the presidency for the last thirty years.
This may sound cheap and superficial, but winning the culture war is not a shallow victory and has broader implications. Cultural roots run deep. Once you build this trust with people, they start to listen to you on other things.
Why would any conservative want to venture into the toxic pop culture wasteland that produced mutants like Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, and Marilyn Manson? Exactly because that’s where the absurdities lay, unchecked and free to roam as they please into the hearts and minds of our celebrity-obsessed culture. Conservatives rightly complain that pop culture is vulgar and crass, but then do little to change it.
To pick off the necessary casual voters to regain the upper hand in the national arena, Republicans must engage this pop culture problem and redefine what “everyone knows” about Republicans.
“Everyone knows” the Republicans are rich, white, old men who don’t care about minorities.
“Everyone knows” the Republicans are old stiffs who want to take the country back to the 1950s and don’t understand the average person.
“Everyone knows” the Republicans aren’t “cool.”
What finally caused a huge shift in abortion attitudes was a breakthrough in 3D ultrasound technology illustrating that developing babies in the womb did, in fact, look like babies. The image of a beautiful and helpless child has done more to shift attitudes on abortion than sophisticated theological and scientific arguments and crass cultural assaults (such as Randall Terry dumping bloody fetus dolls on people) have in the last forty years.
It all starts with Republicans modernizing their brand. Embrace big ideas.
Despite the liberal bent of Hollywood, there are good movies with conservative themes (e.g. Batman: The Dark Knight, The Incredibles, Ghostbusters, and Juno) that prove conservative ideas can be packaged in entertaining ways, not just in the Calvinist and humorless doomsday rhetoric and statistics that often color much of the political commentary.
In a single line in Ghostbusters, Dan Akroyd eviscerated the public sector more effectively than any academic argument against Keynesian economics: “Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities; we didn’t have to produce anything. You’ve never been out of college! You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results.”
On television, Jon Stewart is often derided by the right as the cult leader of a bunch of twenty-something burnouts. Well, those college-age burnouts each get exactly one vote, just as the CEO of a bank, a colonel in the Marines, or an engineer for Lockheed Martin. And they turned out as a higher share of the electorate in 2012 than in 2008. The 2012 election proved you can get enough money from a small number of people to run a campaign, but you can’t get enough votes from them to get elected.
What Jon Stewart does is engage the audience at their level. Even if you don’t agree with the point of view he’s laying out, or the smugness with which he sometimes lays it out, if you can’t at least understand that he’s clever and funny in a way that appeals to casual voters, then you’re part of the culturally tone deaf problem in the Republican party. Conservatives need their own Jon Stewart to give people “something to cackle over at the water cooler,” as Ace of Spades HQ’s Gabriel Malor noted.
Culture can change.
This country went from southern Democrats beating black civil rights leaders in the streets of Alabama to electing a Democrat black president in the space of fifty years. Ugly and prevalent cultural attitudes can be reversed. For example, the Obamaphone lady crassly captured the essence of Obama voters’ beliefs: “Keep Obama in president, you know? He give us a phone. He gone do more." This was said without an ounce of shame. However, the pop culture acceptance of handouts, abortion-on-demand, out-of-wedlock births, and the elevation of victimhood-as-virtue are not irreversible trends.
Conservatives claim they acknowledge the flawed nature of mankind and accept the world as it is, yet the world as it is includes the reality that casual voters have always existed and always will exist. Breaking into pop culture and the prevalent cultural attitudes to shift what "everyone knows” is the only way to build a long-lasting electoral majority at the national level. Just like the War on Terror, there is no watershed moment of total victory. It’s a battle of constant vigilance, and one that can’t be engaged halfheartedly.
Conservatives don’t need to change any of their core values to do so. They just need to present their ideas to the general public more Ghostbusters-style.
Twenty-five years ago, Rush Limbaugh cornered the conservative talk-radio market. Fifteen years ago, Foxnews cornered the conservative news media market. For a talented entertainer, there’s a gaping hole in good conservative pop culture entertainment (proven by the conservative swarm to Stephen Colbert before they realized he was mocking them and a concept Jay Leno seems to recently be latching onto), and in truly capitalistic, free-market fashion, the person who corners it will benefit both himself and the country at large.
In the meantime, the RNC would do well to use some of that “rich, white” money to hire a new generation of PR reps.
Robert J. Guenther is a political commentator and Editor-in-Chief of BiasBreakdown. He can be followed on Twitter @biasbreakdown.